Headache locations and what they mean

By Jean Cherry, MBA, BSN, WCC May 29, 2022 • 6 min

Are you experiencing frequent headaches?

Headaches are common in the following areas:

  • Across the forehead
  • Behind the eyes or on either side of your nose
  • On one side of the head
  • In the back of the head at the base of the skull

Forehead pain

Does your headache pain feel like a band squeezing your forehead? Most likely, you are experiencing the most common type of headache, a tension headache. This type of headache occurs when muscles become tense in your face, neck or shoulders. It can be triggered by holding your head in a single position for long periods, such as working on a computer or projects requiring fine work with your hands. It can also mean that you are under a lot of physical or emotional stress, using too much alcohol, caffeine or tobacco, or having withdrawals from limiting them. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can relieve tension headaches. Other stress relievers include massage, practicing yoga, exercising your neck gently, taking a hot shower or relaxing in a hot tub.

Eye pain or pain on either side of your nose

Headache pain around the eyes may be caused by eye strain from uncorrected vision or astigmatism, an imperfection in your eye that may cause blurriness. It can also be from stress, completing visual tasks or concentrating for long durations of time, or bad posture. Tips to reduce straining your eyes include practicing good posture when sitting at a desk, taking breaks from tasks that are visually demanding and using an anti-glare filter screen for your computer. See an ophthalmologist or optometrist if the eye strain headaches continue, as you may need glasses or contacts, or an update to your existing prescription.

An ocular or retinal migraine causes brief attacks of visual problems, such as flashes of light, zig zag lines or blind spots in the field of vision in one eye. They usually don’t last longer than 20 minutes. Relief options are OTC pain medications, resting your eyes, taking a break from screens and getting out of bright sunlight or harsh lights. Usually, the symptoms do not last long if you take away what triggers them. However, if they persist, see a provider. 

A sinus headache occurs when the sinus cavities, located in your forehead, inside your cheekbones and behind your nose, become inflamed and congested. Signs you may have a sinus infection are thick yellow or green drainage from the nose, postnasal drip or a cough. Sinus infections may or may not be accompanied by a fever. Sinus infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses, but most are viral, so antibiotics usually will not help. Generally, sinus infections resolve on their own. Using OTC pain relievers and rinsing your nose and sinuses with salt water several times a day with a neti pot can make you feel better. Nasal decongestants or antihistamines can help reduce congestion.

Pain on one side of the head

In addition to ocular migraines causing pain on one side of your head, cluster headache symptoms also involve pain on one side of your head or around one eye, often accompanied by  a drooping eyelid, tearing and congestion on the same side of the head.

A temple headache can occur on one or both sides of the head, and it can be a sharp, searing pain that continues for several days. The headaches are not life-threatening but may be painful enough to interfere with life and work.

Back of the skull pain

An occipital headache, or pain at the base of the skull, occurs when nerves in your upper back and neck radiating into the scalp are irritated and inflamed. The pain can be sharp and burning or happen in short bursts and may be associated with a migraine headache. You may also reduce symptoms by applying ice or heat to reduce pain and stiffness. Other treatments include stretching your neck, shoulder and back muscles to make them stronger, avoiding sitting in one position too long and taking steps to reduce stress.

Another headache in the back of the neck and head is cervicogenic headaches. They can be triggered by injury or wear and tear to the neck and cervical spine due to arthritis, compression of the spine, herniated discs between vertebrae or a concussion. The neck's range of motion will likely be reduced. Several interventions that may help are physical therapy or nerve blocks.

Most headaches can be effectively managed with over-the-counter pain medications. Consult a healthcare provider if your headache comes on suddenly and is very painful, is associated with a blow to the head, is associated with confusion or balance issues, weakness or numbness, fever or seizures, or a stiff neck.

Clinically reviewed and updated by Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN, May 2022.

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